“Mother, go within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for speech is man’s matter, and mine above all others—for it is I who am master here.”
The Odyssey, Book I
Ten years ago, a job offer popped up on my Facebook feed—a local company that produced Bible audiobooks was looking for someone to read the Bible in Spanish. I’m pretty nearly fluent, and the compensation was generous, so I rang up and offered to audition. The voice on the other line remained silent for about four full seconds.
“Um…..I was kind of hoping for a man,” he said.
“Oh. OK.” I replied, slightly nonplussed. He hung up.
It was one of those surreal moments that throws you into a semi-existential crisis for a moment—did that really happen? ‘Well, sure it did,’ I said to myself. ‘How many times have you heard an audiobook of a woman reading the Bible? Don’t all of them have powerful, resonant voices like James Earl Jones? Didn’t James Earl Jones actually do a recording of the Bible?’ Nonetheless, something didn’t sit quite right with me—sure, having a male voice was traditional, but was it biblical? Were women only allowed to read the Bible aloud if no men could hear them? I went back to my office and asked my boss if it was inappropriate that I should have offered to read, or if it was wrong for a woman to read the Bible in that context.
“No. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Regrettably, not everyone shares my boss’ views on this point. That phone conversation wasn’t the first time someone expressed concern to me over the propriety of women speaking authoritatively in a public medium. When I was attending seminary, the first question I was invariably asked was a confused, “Wait—why are you going there? You can’t preach.” During my time at White Horse Inn, I’ve received more than a few e-mails from listeners who were very concerned that women were discussing and debating theological points with the White Horse Inn radio hosts.
It’s not just Telemachus (quoted above) that has concerns about female agency and authority—a cursory glance at some of Paul’s letters in the New Testament can leave the impression that he thinks Telemachus is on to something. In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote that if women wanted to learn anything about the Scriptures, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:35). In his letter to Timothy, he writes that women should, “learn quietly, with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Tim. 2:11-12). We see no such comparable admonitions for men in Scripture, leaving the impression that there’s something problematic about women speaking in public—whether in the church, government, or society. Certainly those verses have been used by some to support the idea that women shouldn’t speak or serve the church in a publicly prominent role, but is that a legitimate interpretation?
Let Me Be A (Biblical) Woman
It’s this question that Rachel Green Miller wants to unpack in her début book, Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society. In a forthright, clear, and tempered manner (with some well-timed humor) Miller examines our assumptions about the essential nature of men and women as emotional, mental and physical beings, and dissects them in the light of biblical revelation. Beginning with a quick tour through pagan antiquity, she connects the historical dots through the Renaissance into the Victorian era through World War II into the present day, persuasively arguing that at least half of what we believe to be true about the nature of men and women has been informed by pagan antiquity, glossed over with the sheen of biblical authority. Using the Greek anthropological pillars of male physical and intellectual superiority and female delicacy and weakness, we’ve propped up pagan definitions about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ natures and used them (instead of biblical revelation) as the basis for our sweeping applications for how authority and submission determine the way men and women (not just husbands and wives) should interact. Miller contends that this over-emphasis on authority and submission levies unbiblical and unnecessary restrictions on both men and women and places them in adversarial relationship to one another. When we place the Pauline verses mentioned above (1 Cor. 14:35; 1 Tim. 2:11-12) in the context of the whole counsel of God, we see authority and submission qualified under the broader, primary categories of union in Christ, mutual dependence, and mutual service. He wasn’t saying that women speaking in church is categorically sinful—Priscilla instructed Apollos in “a more excellent way” (Acts 18:26); Timothy received his theological instruction from his mother and grandmother Eunice and Lois (2 Tim. 1:5), and the daughters of Philip the evangelist were prophets (Acts 21:9). So, far from being condemned for speaking, these women are upheld as examples of Christian piety and service. That doesn’t undercut authority and submission; it places those concepts within the proper context. It’s this distinction Miller is taking care to emphasize: while there certainly is a biblical mandate for qualified men to serve as deacons, elders, and ministers, and for wives to submit to their husbands, they are not the ultimate parameters by which all male-female relationships are bound, and there is greater room for female public participation in the life of the church than has heretofore been assumed.
While she’s careful to point out the abuses of authority and submission, Miller is more concerned about uncovering and examining the nonbiblical presuppositions that have undergirded conservative sexual apologetics. Again, she wholly assents to and agrees with authority, submission, and the parameters around ministerial ordination as biblical concepts; it’s the use of those concepts as blanket categories by which we determine what constitutes ‘biblical’ masculinity and femininity that she takes issue with. Citing specific examples from prominent conservative voices like Doug Wilson, John Piper, Mary Kassian and Nancy Leigh DeMoss, the author argues that while their points about headship, submission, and ministerial ordination are largely correct, their theological underpinnings are based on pagan philosophy (not biblical revelation) and as a result, lead to distortions and perversions of those concepts. Rather than letting the whole counsel of God inform our understanding of authority and submission, we filter the whole counsel of God through authority and submission, thus placing extrabiblical restrictions on both men and women and hindering the body of Christ from enjoying the loving fellowship that is meant to characterize her (Jn 13:35). To illustrate, she takes the reader through various examples of the pious mothers and fathers of redemptive history who exemplified godliness while exhibiting non-traditional masculine and feminine characteristics: Zelophehad’s daughters sued Israel for their right to inherit their father’s property (Num. 27:7-9); Deborah was a prophetess and judge of Israel as well as a wife (Judges); Hannah dedicated her son (her husband’s heir) to the temple; the Shunnamite woman provided for Elisha the prophet (2 Kings 4:8-10); Priscilla, Lydia, and Phoebe all worked outside their homes. Moses (in contrast to the barrel-chested Charlton Heston interpretation) was described as the meekest man in all the earth (Num. 12:3), Barak ‘submitted’ to Deborah’s leadership (Judg. 4:6), Boaz ‘responded’ to Ruth’s initiative when she functionally asked him to marry her (Ruth 3:6-15), Paul commends Phoebe to the church in Rome and praises her for her service, and David praised the love of his friend Jonathan as, ‘surpassing the love of women’ (1 Sam. 1:26).
The point of these examples is not to dismiss sexual distinctions as unimportant or to say that the traditional conceptions of masculine and feminine are bad. The point is that Scripture reveals godly men and women of all ages, stages, and ranks who show marvelous diversity in their personalities and manners while glorifying the God who made them. While certain traits and patterns remain, it’s not the ‘maleness’ or ‘femaleness’ of these people that commends them, but their piety. The same holds true today—men and women are to conform to the image of Christ as he has revealed it in his word, not the traditional iterations of ‘male’ and ‘female’. The two are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they necessary and sufficient qualifications for godliness. “We were created as women and men to be co-laborers together. If we focus on being co-laborers in marriage, we will build each other up and demonstrate love by serving each other. In the church, a focus on being co-laborers will strengthen us as we encourage and exhort each other and support the leadership of the church as we grow in and faith. And our societies will be blessed by an emphasis on laboring together” (285).
“Awake Deborah, Arise Barak”
I appreciated the systematic way Miller worked through how we got to where are, where we presently find ourselves, and examined our position in light of Scriptural revelation—there are no sweeping assertions or vague historical references; she did all the homework and has the footnotes to prove it (though some critics have suggested that her research was a touch selective). The book is a breath of invigorating air in the midst of continually fraught discussions on things like how a female superhero undermines femininity, and it was extremely edifying to see candid assessments and incisive criticism tempered with a courteous and engaging voice. This is not to say that there were a few sections that left me scratching my head—in chapter 12, Miller discusses divorce and its legitimate grounds in Scripture, saying that “there is a third understanding of divorce among conservative Christians—the serious-sin view,” citing domestic abuse as an instance where, although not explicitly Scriptural, a spouse has biblical grounds for filing for divorce. Her purpose in this chapter was not to delve into the biblical foundations of this view (though she does give them), but to caution against a too-high view of marriage where, even in the face of serious perpetual sin, divorce is not an option. Still, I wish she had spent more time unpacking it, as it raised a few questions. (Space precludes me from mentioning them here, but for those interested, this post from TGC was helpful.)
In an age where society seems utterly bent on undoing some of the very building blocks of reality, the desire to revert to fundamentalism is natural. There are certain facts about human beings (like the reality of two sexes) that the Lord has engraved upon our consciousness as self-evidently true, and when we see humanity doing its best to try to efface that knowledge from their hearts and minds, it’s terrifying. When we arrive at the point where the biological distinctions between men and women are rejected, and the connection between our physical, mental and emotional selves is dismantled so that we can literally make ourselves into any image we choose, it makes sense that some people would want to circle the wagons and muster the troops.
This is why Christians should give thanks for the clear revelation of God and the beauty of the redemptive drama—here we see neither inflexible tropes nor lawless abandon, but men and women, in all their sinful and pious complexity, learning to rely wholly on their creator and redeemer for their identity, security, and stability. Men are not shamed for showing emotion or taking instruction from their sisters, women are not shamed for speaking publicly or stepping out of social bounds, but both are praised for glorifying God by their love for him, submission to his will, and faithful service to one another. Society may be unhinging itself and the end of all things can feel imminent, but the word of our God still stands–Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever; he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, and his reign will never end. Beyond Authority and Submission provides biblical ballast and good food for thought for the church as we continue to navigate the turbulent waters of the twenty-first century, reminding us that while social mores and sexual politics may change, we are still being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).
Brooke Ventura is the digital editor of Modern Reformation. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her family.